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Baffoe: Minnesota Golden Gopher Protest Is Ironic, Not Righteous

By Tim Baffoe--

(CBS) For all the snark I and plenty of others have expressed toward the myth that is the NCAA "student-athlete" in major sports, it really does fill the glass a little more than half-empty when college players actually show themselves to embody what higher learning is supposed to be about.

The actions of the Missouri football players in fall 2015 were righteous. Members of various athletic teams from more than 30 colleges and universities have at some point risked ridicule in favor of dialogue and joined San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in his national anthem kneeling to call more attention to police violence against people of color. Nigel Hayes, Jordan Hill and Bronson Koenig, all hoopers at Wisconsin, have been vocal and active about causes dear to them while risking an NBA future by being deemed too political and, thus, a risk.

Such examples are a sliver of the college player collective, but they're truly what the spirit of any NCAA commercial about how pure that scam is is supposed to actually be (and why, again, the "student-athlete" thing is more myth than standard). Healthy protests are good. Conscientious objecting is foundationally American. Upsetting the status quo regularly is necessary to best expel the foul humors of the body politic.

And yet college athletes are mostly young adults, some of whom for which that great student-athlete education hasn't involved much in critical thinking exercises. Therefore, they're prone to misguided, if not really ignorant, approaches to social stances. An unfortunate example of that was on display Wednesday.

The Minnesota Golden Gopher football team has chosen, for the time being, to boycott all football activities, including their Holiday Bowl appearance against Washington State on Dec. 27, until the indefinite suspensions of 10 Gopher players are lifted. The suspensions stem from a sexual assault allegation in September. Following those initial allegations made by a female game-day operations staffer, six Gopher players were suspended for an October game against Rutgers due to a restraining order granted to the accuser. Four of those six were suspended for three games earlier in the season during an investigation into the alleged sexual assault. The Hennepin County Attorney's Office chose in early October not to pursue charges against any of the players, citing insufficient evidence.

"The boycott will remain in effect until due process is followed and the suspensions for all 10 players involved are lifted," Gopher senior Drew Wolitarsky said in a prepared statement read alongside the rest of the team Wednesday. "We got no answers to our questions about why these kids were suspended when they were just found (innocent) by the law. (Athletic director Mark Coyle, who met with the team Wednesday) basically told us that he didn't have answers, and that led us to believe that this is kind of unjust. He has the power to reverse this, and he won't."

And there's the terrible inevitable irony. On a long enough timeline, eventually a student-athlete protest will become a conundrum that eats its own head.

No doubt the rest of the Gopher players believe their teammates have been wronged by the collegiate sports system. Certainly some rudimentary social media understanding of amendment rights is overtaking an understanding of Title IX and the operations of the university's office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (EOAA), which, per the suspended players' attorney, has recommended expulsion for Ray Buford, Carlton Djam, KiAnte Hardin, Dior Johnson and Tamarion Johnson; one-year suspensions from the university for Seth Green, Kobe McCrary, Mark Williams and Antoine Winfield Jr.; and probation for Antonio Shenault.

But this is the protest of a group of young men -- the ripest sort for absorbing misinformation and/or obstinate views of the world outside their bubbles -- that isn't noble, isn't wise and isn't in the spirit of any crappy PR ad or most liberal professor's classroom.

This isn't rupturing that status quo mentioned earlier or sticking it to the powerful. Siding with alleged rapists over victims - -charges filed or not, convictions made or not -- is the status quo. Putting sports over violence against women is the very powerful windmill these football players think they're slaying. I'm not going to rehash all the statistics that show a person not being charged with sexual assault is hardly indicative of whether sexual assault occurred. I'm tired of re-arguing that "due process" is a severely flawed system when it comes to rape -- especially involving athletes -- a system heavily disproportionately favoring the accused (male) and not the accuser. All that information is readily available, and it's clear the Minnesota student-athletes didn't bother to even use the SparkNotes version.

This isn't a protest on behalf of the marginalized college athlete. It probably feels all revolutionary, Bob Marley dorm poster stuff. Your boys have been wronged in the myopic world of major college sports, right, senior Gopher Mitch Leidner?

"All these kids' reputations are destroyed," said Leidner, the team's quarterback. "Their names are destroyed, and it's extremely difficult to get back, and it's very unfair for them and that's why we're sticking together through this thing."

This is more Oregon militia standoff than Marley, and it further marginalizes women as less-thans when it comes to football and rape victims as inconveniences. It further gives power to a side that already has the vast majority of it -- dudes, particularly ones who play revenue-generating sports. Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys obviously incorporates courses on social hierarchies in those athletic department-picked player class schedules.   

Worst of all, this Gopher football team boycott turns the protest system ickily on its head and makes the school and athletic department the sympathetic figures here. Minnesota is willing to sacrifice serious cash by compromising its team's ability to win games this season over this sexual assault allegation. The big money is in the bowl game and beyond, though. These players understand they have the school superiors by the footballs.

"We're all in this together," Wolitarsky said. "What are they going to do, pull 120 guys off the team? They won't have a team if that's the case."

And the player are just toxically bright enough to publicly put the onus on school officials to not ruin America's rabid love of the Holiday Bowl and the work of all parties involved.

"This decision for the players to take this stance is not easy, but important to preserve the integrity of our program and ourselves," Wolitarsky said. "We note that the Holiday Bowl Committee, Washington State and the fans are affected by that decision. To that end, we respectfully request that the Holiday Bowl Committee be patient during this time, while Mark Coyle considers his decision to suspend. We also want to request that Mark Coyle make his decision with due haste."

So sorry that the bad people with consciences, or at least a respect for the EOAA or victims of sexual assault everywhere, or even just an awareness of Penn State and Baylor and myriad other obvious evidence of college football's problem with handling rape situations, are turding up the football punch bowl, everybody. It sure does stink that athletes can't act dangerously with impunity as much as they used to.

And this protest becomes indistinguishable from anyone who defends any of the infamous violent sports men of recent vintage when you throw in some more social media sociologists crying "but legally..." (which doesn't matter regarding suspensions for behavior) and "their reputations" (as members of a D-I program among boosters and alumni with connections) and "senior last game though" (the memories of which will last forever, just like those of someone's rape).

These Minnesota Golden Gopher players aren't heroes for boycotting on behalf of football over alleged sexual assault, regardless if that's how they see it, because they don't see clearly to begin with. Their righteousness is a myth. Sadly ironic, isn't it?

Considering they think they're living the ideals of a true student-athlete, itself largely a myth.

Tim Baffoe is a columnist for Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.

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